Through his living room window, Nikhil studied the orange chalk markings on the front door of his neighbor’s house. He no longer understood the numbers and slashes that had been drawn by the National Guard several weeks ago. He had been slumped in his gray leather chair for the past three days, his body shrunken in the green hospital scrubs he once wore to work. His wife Yasmin and daughter Nadia hovered around him, offering him food, to take him to the toilet, to reconnect his oxygen. He shook his head and waved them off. But when his mother told him she bought fresh mango from the fruitwala, he turned to look at her. She was draped in the same emerald green silk saree she had worn on the day she died in a car accident some sixty years ago. She spoke in Marathi—Me baajaratune taaje ambe andle—and nonchalantly handed him one of his favorite treats, a slice of fresh Alfonso mango. In the time it took for him to inhale, he left New Orleans to visit his childhood home in Bombay. It was 1942, again.
Nikhil felt the usual mix of reluctance and relief before each visit home. He smelled the frying onion mixed with garam masala that always lingered in the kitchen. Then he heard his father’s chuppels slapping the hallway floor. The vendors called from the street in Marathi, interspersed with Hindi and English. The crows flapped their wings and cawed from the verandah. The back of his neck sweated as the temperature rose, for Bombay had no air-conditioning. The only relief from the heat was from the ceiling fan and the breeze through the open windows. He was back in the main room of the flat he had grown up in, on the third floor of the rambling building his family owned.
Nikhil felt his mother’s hand clasp his wrist and the pulloo from her silk saree brush against his arm. He stretched his legs luxuriously and bit the mango, which was sweet and unbearably delicious. “Aai, pudlaweli bazaarath jasheel tevha taadgole ansheel ka?”
He heard his wife Yasmin’s voice before he saw her. “Stop speaking in Marathi,” she said. “You know Nadia can’t understand. She’s come all this way to see you and she can’t understand anything you’re saying.”
His mother’s flat in Bombay trembled with every word Yasmin spoke, and then melted away. Only his mother lingered, gazing at his wife. They had never met. The living room of his house in New Orleans came back into focus. The TV screen with the omnipresent CNN. The two foot high fabric mirror work elephant around whose neck hung two forgotten strands of Mardi Gras beads. The woven medallion rugs, the stacks of newspapers. He still tasted the sweetness of the mango in his mouth as a dull aching pain returned to his body. The thin plastic tube from the oxygen pressed against his nose and upper lip. His breath, which was deep and nourishing during his trip to Bombay, became thin and reedy.
“I’ve brought your coffee.” Yasmin held the cup up to his face.
After being with his mother, who had smooth skin and jet black hair, Nikhil was shocked to see how old his wife was. He recognized the striking features, but why was her skin sagging? Why did she have so much white hair? He suddenly had a sharp memory of her from when they were medical students. He had been in Pune for training while she finished school in Bombay. His room had no electricity and every night he wrote Yasmin a letter by match light. He struck one match, wrote until the flame extinguished, then struck another. In the morning, a completed letter and stack of dead matches lay on his desk.
“I was speaking to Ai. You know she never learned English.”
Yasmin sat in the kitchen table chair that had been placed next to his armchair. She held the coffee to Nikhil’s mouth. “Sip carefully. Your mother is dead.”
Nikhil shook his head at the coffee despite the inviting aroma. “What do you mean she’s dead? She just brought me a slice of mango. How can a dead person go to the bhaji market down the street and buy mangoes?”
“There is no bhaji market down the street! You’re not in Bombay, you’re in New Orleans.”
Nadia took the mug of coffee from Yasmin. “Mom, you’re just upsetting him. There’s no point, he’ll forget anyway.”
Nadia appeared to be about the same age as his mother, in her thirties. For the first time, he noticed the striking resemblance between his daughter and his mother—the same round face and large eyes. Ai, who usually retreated apprehensively when his wife and daughter were present, leaned close to him too, unwilling to leave. She watched his daughter curiously. They were the same age now and separated by only a thread. He wished to stay on the border, where his loved ones could finally meet. But his mother retreated as the voices of his wife and daughter caused her figure to ripple and dissolve.
Nadia held the mug again to his lips, and he gingerly took a sip.
“You’re making yourself sicker,” Yasmin continued. “You’ve hardly left that chair in three days. You need fresh air.”
“I’m not going anywhere.” He had received plenty of air during his trips to Bombay. Just yesterday his brother Ravi had joined Nikhil and their mother on Chowpatty beach. Together they had walked along the beach, the sand hot under their bare feet, watching the waves in the dark green water. Ravi had a shock of actual black hair, instead of that ridiculous toupee he had worn for the last twenty years of his life. Nikhil walked along Chowpatty beach with ease in a body that felt strong and vital. Leaving that body to return to New Orleans was one of the hardest things Nikhil had do and it only became harder with each visit home. Nikhil resisted at first, and then willed himself to return to that decrepit, aging body in New Orleans as Nadia repeated his name and softly pleaded with him to come back.
Nikhil also resisted when Ai wanted to take him to Bombay. When he sat in his armchair, he often lapsed into the illusion that he had just returned home from work. The presence of Yasmin and Nadia reassured him, and the TV was equally soothing with the constant drone of news. Next to him lay a copy of the newspaper, two weeks old, his eyeglasses resting on the front page. He avoided looking too closely at the newspaper because that once reliable object had become untrustworthy. He had tried to read the headlines several days ago and with a shock realized he could no longer read. The letters swam in front of his eyes, refusing to form coherent words. Sometimes he recognized the newspaper as The New York Times, with a front page photo of the New Orleans Superdome. Other times he wondered if the newspaper was The Times of India, and the curving greyish white silhouette in the photo was unidentifiable but reminded him of a taadgole, one of his favorite childhood fruits.
“We’re going to the park,” his wife continued. “Just for half an hour. You’ll sit in your wheelchair, you don’t have to do anything. Once you’re there you’ll like it.”
He shook his head in annoyance. Arre Rama, not this again. The house in New Orleans was stable with forty years of memories. He could grip those memories, the life he had spent four decades building, and stay anchored when his mother tried to pull him away. But if he went outside into the unknown, Ai could whisk him away at any time and who knew if he would be able to return? He summoned up every ounce of energy and heard his voice, as forceful as when he was healthy: “I’m not going anywhere.”
Yet Yasmin and Nadia continued talking, their words washing over him in meaningless waves. He sighed in fatigue. The more time he spent in Bombay, the more English he forgot. The words of Marathi, his childhood language, emerged in his mind as crisp and fresh as if he had never left India. Just hearing so much English, especially his daughter’s American accent, tired him so much that his resistance collapsed and he found himself in the car on the way to the park, his wheelchair folded and in the trunk.
Nadia sat in the backseat next to him, her hand on his arm. “Can we even go to City Park?” Nadia asked Yasmin, who was backing the car out of the driveway. “It’s not flooded?”
“I took him there last week, just before you returned. That FEMA cut a lot of the oak trees down, but there’s a section that is completely fine. Remember where I used to take you to get soft ice cream when you were little?”
The traffic light at the intersection had burned out. All the houses were empty, and piles of debris and broken furniture lay on yellowed lawns. Nikhil wondered where they were and if there had been a war. He shuddered as he recalled the Partition of India in 1948. Bodies, destroyed buildings, devastation. But then a memory from his recent past surfaced. The vaadal—in English, a storm. “There was a hurricane, wasn’t there?” he said proudly.
His wife glanced at his daughter. “Yes, three months ago. But the city is coming back. People are starting to move back.”
“Katrina, Dad,” Nadia added. She leaned forward and continued in an undertone to Yasmin: “He’s doing well today, I think you were right to try taking him out. Look, he even remembers Katrina.”
His wife and daughter seemed to think he could not hear properly, and he did nothing to discourage that impression, since he gleaned a great deal of important information when they talked about him. Yesterday he overheard a conversation between Yasmin and Dr. Shore, who were in the kitchen discussing his latest test results. “Moderate atrophy of the brain. Can happen with ALS in the final stages....” Nikhil had pushed the button on the remote control to raise the volume of the TV, not wanting to hear anymore.
After moving to New Orleans as a young man he had periodically flown back to Bombay for visits. His two brothers still lived in the same building they had all grown up in, their families occupying different floors. As the years passed Nikhil felt an increasing reluctance before each trip to India. He felt uncomfortable in Bombay—he missed hot showers and air-conditioning, and his stomach was constantly upset. Worse, he struggled to speak Marathi, the familiar syllables eluding him. He was always relieved to return to his life in New Orleans. But the New Orleans he knew no longer existed, and he could not will himself to come back and start over again.
The oak trees of the park drifted past. Spanish moss hung from branches like long gray hair. “Where are we going?” His voice was weak and his wife and daughter did not even hear him. He recalled wistfully the powerful voice he had when he was younger, the voice that he recovered when he returned to Bombay.
His resolve cracked, the oak trees trembled. The gnarled dark roots and branches shifted, the wood became lighter. Banyan trees. From habit, he stretched his fingers to grip the arms of his leather chair. No armchair to hold him in this world, no television playing CNN, no newspaper. Only the melting trees, the unfamiliar car. “I want to go home!”
“In a little while,” his wife answered. “We— “
Her voice broke off. The vinyl seat of the car was now the cotton sheet covering the day bed in Ai’s living room. We’re all traveling up north, into the hills, Ai murmured. Dada and your brother too. Talao cha dekhava tula athavto ka? Chul zaauya.
“Drushya aathavte.” His voice was strong, his Marathi flawless. “But I won’t stay long.”